Kabardino – Balkaria : travel itinerary suggestions in the North Caucasus

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Waterfall in Kabardino - Balkaria. Travel itinerary in the North Caucasus, Russia

Last updated : 27/11/2022

For sure you know one of the biggest attraction for foreign and local tourists in the whole North Caucasus : mount Elbrus ! Yes, the twin peaks is located in Kabardino – Balkaria but there’s so much more than Europe’s highest mountain to see over there !

Here you will meet hospitable (and some very curious!) locals, learn a bit of dodgy Soviet history, and hike to serious jawdropping mountain views !

I have spent about 3 weeks roaming around (yeah I’m a slow traveler), and here’s a list of places to visit in Kabardino – Balkaria.

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Good to know

There are three main ethnic groups in Kabardino – Balkaria :

  • The Kabards, one tribe of Circassians living mostly in the lowlands like Nalchik, Baksan & other villages down the mountains.
  • The Balkars living in the mountain areas like Elbrus, Chegem and Upper Balkaria.
  • There is a quite large population of ethnic Russians as well.

Locals are used to see tourists coming to climb mount Elbrus, including foreigners, but don’t expect much English there if your backpacking on your own. However, locals are super friendly, and even with a few broken words of Russian and Google Translate you will be fine.

Special mention about Balkar : they are very curious, don’t be suprised to get some quite personal questions, especially if you’re a solo female traveler : Why are you alone ?? Why aren’t you married yet ??

Border zone permit

I applied for a border zone permit in Kabardino – Balkaria, like I applied for a bunch of permits in the neighboring republics as I didn’t really know where it would come in handy.

My application got denied, because I forgot to mention I did not intend to climb the Elbrus.

The peak is within the border zone and has special regulations. You can’t just apply for a permit and set off to the top of Europe’s highest mountain just like that. It has to be organised, with a guide.

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If you don’t have a permit you will only be able to go to Nalkchik, most of the republic’s lowlands, and El’brus, the village not the peak.

Okay I’m exagerating a bit but you will not be able to go hiking around the Elbrus for example (not talking about the peak itself that definitely requires one). The mountains are the true gem of the republic in case you didn’t get it until now.

I’m not saying it’d pointless to visit Kabardino – Balkaria without a permit (I did) but you will definitely be limited in the mountains, depending on where you’re heading to.

Kabardino Balkarie

On the map above, at the top of the page you will find all the locations of the following places. I strongly recommend you to use Yandex map (Russian google) instead of Google maps or anything else you’re using. Maps.me works pretty good too.

The names can be spelled in a different way from cyrilic to latin scripts, that’s why you will find the names in their original forms to make it easier to search on whatever map you use.

I have also mentionned if a border zone permit is necessary or not. There’s no general map (at least that I’m aware of) to show exactly where the border zone and the military posts are, but I’ve tried my best to pin them in red on the map.

Nalchik

(Нальчик) – Nalchik, the capital. You will most probably arrive there at first, by marshrutka or by train from neighoring republics. First thing that you might spot on your way in is the MDV (police) office and a quite big portrait of Putin …

Fountain in Nalchik, Kabardino - Balkaria, Russia

There are a few different markets in town, restaurants, cafés, parks, a “1000 stairs” path to nowhere, a couple of suspended bridge accross the Nalchik river, a national museum that was closed for repairs when I was there and obviously quite a few hotels (+ one far away and a bit crappy hostel that I don’t recommend) options to sleep in.

You could totally spend a couple of days (or more) exploring the city or even make it your base to do day trips and explore the surroundings.

The Cherek valley

(Черек) – The road down to the valley runs along the river Cherek. It’ i’s very accessible from Nalchik but the road halfway through turns into a bumpy unfinished dirt road.

  • Aushiger (Аушигер) hot springs. Quite well organised hot springs with proper pools. Best to do in winter time for an epic warm swim in the cold surrounded by snow.
  • Goluboye lake (Озеро Голубое) or blue lake. It is considered to be one of Russia’s deepest lake because they never managed to get to the bottom of it. You can walk around it, buy some local souvenirs. There are actually 3 lakes next to each other but this one is the most popular one because it’s right by the main road. Diving tours can be organised too.
  • Verkhanya Balkaria (Upper – Balkaria – Верхняя Балкария) : Ruins of Balkar villages. In 1944, the Soviets soldiers massacred the people they were meant to protect. Men, women & children of 8 villages got accused (by mistake or probably for some Soviet general to get medals) of collaborations with the Nazis who were on their way to the Caspian sea oil.

    Don’t be surprised to see Russians all smiling taking selfies out there, many are just not aware of the history and only come for the views.This place is access free, just walk across the bridge pass the restaurant/hotel. There’s a old board explaning the history of the place, but it’s in Russian only.
Kabardino - Balkaria travel guide
Kabardino - Balkaria travel guide

You can keep going down along the Cherek river, plenty of waterfalls and more hikes to do but make sure you have a border zone permit as you are litteraly 20 kms away from the Georgian border. The military post is located a few kilometers after Verkhnaya Balkaria.

The Chegem valley

(Чегем) – The Chegem Valley is considered by Balkars as the historical region of their people. There is one of the best preserved necropolise in the Caucasus.

Necropolis in the Chegem valley, Kabardino - Balkaria, Russia
  • Paradrome (Парадром Чегем) : If you like paragliding, this is the place for you. Russia’s top location for it !
  • Eltyubyu (Эльтюбю), a Balkar village often said by locals to be the center of Balkar history. There’s a house museum of a local poet, but you come here mostly for Gorod Mertvykh (Город Мертвых), aka the City of the Dead.

    This is one of the three best preserved necropolis of the North Caucasus with Tsoi Pede in Chechnya and Dargavs in North Ossetia – Alania.

The border zone post is located a couple of kilometers after the village of Bulungu (Булунгу).

The Baksan valley

(Баксан) – The most traveled road by tourists in Kabardino – Balkaria leading to mount Elbrus. There are a lot of accomodations in the villages close to the peak : in Terskol, Baydayevo, Neytrino etc

Make sure to book in advance during high season.

  • Bylym lake (also called Bylymskoe or Gizhgit – Озеро Былым, Былымское & Гижгит) is an artificial reservoir. The place is stunning with its blue water but you can’t swim in there.

    It was used during the USSR for mining waste so now it’s basically a gorgeous looking chemical lake … Soviet souvenir !
  • Tyrnyauz (Тырныаyуз) – Throwback to the Soviet Union guarantee when you cross this little town. Most people don’t stop and you can’t blame them. It looks crap.

    It used to be one of those booming Soviet mining town in the 1940’s and there are actual abandonned mines up there. You need to hike up to reach the mines and get great moutain views at the same time !

    Also, the former house of culture got turn into a mosque after the fall of the USSR. Orthodox and Muslims are living quite peacefully together but it was not always the case. Nowadays it is safe and the FSB has an office in town.
  • Prielbrussie National Park (Приэльбрусье национальный парк). You can access some parts without a permit.

    At the end of the road you have the choice between taking a new cable car or a Soviet one to get a closer look at the Elbrus. Then if you feel adventurous, you can take even further up a single seat cable car !

    Awesome views, fresh air and a unique experience guaranteed ! You could totally go hiking a bit around without a permit, but keep in mind that the FSB is there. If you bumped into them and can’t show the document, you are in HUGE TROUBLES. Just so you know.
Kabardino - Balkaria travel guide

As I mentionned before, I did not climb the Elbrus. I wish I was fit enough for such adventure but I am not. I don’t have any guide or company to recommend you to climb it.

Only one tip : make sure you book with a trusted agency with good reviews. There are plenty of foreigners every year that climb it, and they obviously all go through an agency. I’ve met a couple of them, their guide was apparently super professional and speaking great english.

The Adyr – Suu gorge

(Адыр-Суу) – Ever seen a cable car for cars? Overthere you will ! Yes, you read right. There has been accidents in the past but no worries people walk up the stairscase on the side.

There’s a border zone post after the “lift” so without a border zone permit you will not go any further.

Adyr Suu Gorge in Kabardino - Balkaria, Russia

This gorge is also called the “Svan pass”, Svan people used to travel from Svaneti in Georgia to Balkaria back in the days. Also it’s a very popular area for local mountain hikers.

You will find the Ullu-Tau (Уллу-Тау) alpine camp, named after the high peak nearby. This base for hikers opened in 1936 is running from early summer until the end of september : beds, showers, canteen and equipment rental.

There are dozens of trails in the area from quite easy to difficult. You can see ibex, waterfalls, pristine lakes and more !

The Bezengi valley

(Безенги) -You need a permit for that one, there is a military post right after the village of the same name.

The Bezengi wall is not an actual wall but it’s home to 5 of the 7 Caucasus peaks above 5000 meters. This area is popular among experienced hikers. If you want to know more about it, check out this page of Russia.travel, they have quite precise informations about it.

The Bezengi wall in Kabardino - Balkaria, Russia

The Bezengi mountaineering base offers accomodation, gear rental and more.

Dzhily – Suu

(Джилы-Су) – Also spelled Djili – Suu meaning hot waters in Balkar, is full of waterfalls and hot springs but mostly, the road from Kislvodsk is considered by many Russian tourists to be one of the most scenic in the North Caucasus as it’s on the north side of Mount Elbrus. A must go and see place in the area.

Scenic route to Djili - Suu, Kabardino - Balkaria, Russia

It has jaw dropping views on the Elbrus ! Not easy to get to but definitely worth the drive !

With all that, you can now start planning your next adventure to Kabardino – Balkaria.

This republic of Russia is so underrated in my opinion. Foreigners barely heard its name, even the ones climbing the Elbrus …

If you’re a mountain enthousiast I highly recommend you to come to this corner of the North Caucasus, people are great, mountains are stunning, you will have a blast for sure !

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Let me know in the comments if you have any questions, suggestions, if you’ve been there already or if you’re planning to go after reading this post !

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